Fifty years after a fateful moment that perpetually haunted him, Bob Conway ’49 put an Orange Bowl demon to rest.
By John Gearan ’65
The agony is over. Nowadays, Bob Conway can force a smile about perhaps the greatest game-ending episode in college bowl history.
The pain is mostly gone—except for a wince when, at a social gathering, a local insurance man will pointedly ask him, once again, to relive the details of that famed football finale. He demurs, with a pang in his heart.
Conway is 79. His personal curse began on Jan. 1, 1946, when he was an 18-year old student-athlete eyeing the frozen, final two ticks left on a scoreboard clock.
Holy Cross, a two-touchdown underdog, had the ball on mighty Miami ’s 26-yard line. The epic Orange Bowl stood resolutely tied, 6-6. Alert freshman Wally Brennan had faked an injury to stop the clock. Holy Cross captain and star, Stan Kozlowski—an elegant back known as “the Rhapsody in Purple”—slumped on the sidelines, exhausted and unable to go on after playing 55 minutes with a debilitating weeklong flu.
Somehow Conway, a freshman playing alongside and against battle-scarred World War II veterans, would be designated as the go-to guy.
John “Ox” DaGrosa, a lawyer working for the federal government while in his first year at the Crusaders’ helm, refused to accept a “moral victory.” He implored a miracle from above. Back-up tailback Gene DeFilippo ’49—who had flown 51 combat missions over Europe —would loft a pass to Conway, cutting across the underbelly of the vaunted Miami defense. That was the plan and the prayer.
Time expired before the ball left DeFilippo’s meaty right hand. Time stood still as Conway leaped high, reaching over his head to haul the ball in with the notion of turning the corner for the end zone at about the 10-yard line.
However, the ball glanced off Conway’s fingertips. He made a valiant second effort to catch it. The tipped-twice ball seemed frozen in midair when Miami freshman Alvin Hudson, a sub-10-second schoolboy sprint champion playing only his second down of the game, snatched it.
In a flash, Hudson dashed 89 yards up the sideline and into the arms of college football immortality. That shocking finish transformed a ho-hum tie into a timeless classic, engraving the 1946 Orange Bowl as one of the Top 100 college football games of all time.
Hudson emerged as a hero, forever. Conway should have been revered for giving it “The Old College Try.” Instead, he was crowned with a scapegoat’s horns of humiliation. For years, Conway was haunted by that old-school football maxim: Never tip the ball a second time. In other words, either catch it or bat it down.
His angst had been made worse after the game when an irate line coach, College legend Hop Riopel, blasted Conway for what he considered a bonehead play.
“We called Play Number 63,” Conway recalled. “I was supposed to run three yards downfield and cut on a slant pattern across the field. Hop thought I went too deep, maybe six yards, before starting my cut. I was trying to get closer to the end zone. As it was, I didn’t end up nearly close enough to the goal.’’
Later, Conway ran into a gruff Riopel getting into a campus elevator. “What the hell were you doing on that play?” Riopel asked him bluntly. His heartache resurfaced, as it would often.
“I don’t want to sound like a crybaby, but on that day in 1946 I was absolutely devastated,’’ Conway recalled in a recent conversation.
“I called my father and had him wire me 50 bucks so I could fly home immediately,” Conway said.
Dejected, Conway did not take the team train back to Worcester. Nor did he stay in Miami to play golf as did Koslowski, who never returned to finish his Holy Cross education. Depressed, Conway flew home to Cincinnati.
“Strangely, I never wanted to go to the Orange Bowl in the first place,” he said. “I had come to Holy Cross as a 17-year-old on July 1—this was in the days of the wartime tri-semesters. I was homesick and wanted to be with my family for Christmas. When we beat Boston College 46-0, we were invited to the Orange Bowl. We held a team vote on whether to accept the bowl invitation. I cast the only negative vote,” Conway acknowledged.
Indeed, Holy Cross wasn’t Conway ’s first college choice. His grandfather and father had graduated from Jesuit-run Xavier University of Cincinnati. But all-male Xavier had dropped football during the war due to declining enrollments. Holy Cross football had been propped up by designation as a Navy V-12 college with special military courses. V-12 trainees were eligible for football.
“I returned for the second semester and then transferred to Xavier, which had re-instituted football. I was football captain my senior year,’’ Conway said.
Nonetheless, the play that cost Holy Cross a tie against Miami continued to gnaw at Conway. After college, he entered the seminary to become a diocesan priest. Was his decision to follow this path affected by his continuing depression over the Orange Bowl?
“It was on my mind,’’ confessed Conway, with a soft laugh.
After five years, and a year before the time for his final vows, Conway left religious life. “The seminary was an important experience,” he said. “I was like many post-war college kids, active in sports and social life but tending to goof off when it came to serious studies. The seminary provided me with an intense academic experience.”
But he still could not put “The Play” behind him. The nightmares didn’t subside until he was 30 and married Ruth Jung. They had eight children and now have 19 grandchildren. Conway became a highly successful businessman and remains chairman of the board of The Bistro Group, a restaurant conglomerate that includes 33 T.G.I.Friday’s franchises.
Conway returned to Holy Cross for a 50th Orange Bowl reunion, celebrating with an 8-2 team that outscored opponents 223-52. He renewed friendships with old pals such as Hall of Famer George Kaftan, next to whom he had roomed on Alumni 3.
In 1996, he also attended a reunion at the Orange Bowl, mingling with his teammates and Miami players. A slight man asked if Conway wanted to see still photos of that famous TD play taken from rare game-film footage. Conway studied the photos intently. The old Miami player pointed out how Conway had made a terrific attempt to catch the ball, noting that even if Conway had made a circus catch, he never would have kept his feet and gotten into the end zone.
At that moment, a recurring twinge in his psyche vanished. Conway had proof that he had given it The Old College Try. Conway thanked the Miami player for showing him the pictures. Al Hudson, a hero in 1946 and now a jockeys’ agent in Florida, said it was his pleasure.
To this day, when they vacation in Florida, the Conways always have dinner with their good friends, the Hudsons. And they have a lot more to talk about than if the 1946 Orange Bowl had ended in a tie.
John W. Gearan ’65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.